12 Sep 2010

Has Stephen Hawking Solved the Mystery of Existence?

Religious 39 Comments

[UPDATE below.]

I am blogging from Vegas, here for a presentation to an insurance group. I realize this sounds weird, but I actually feel like I won too much at my first hour at the Blackjack tables. Right now I’m up $205 after 70 minutes (from playing the table minimum of $15) which is pretty amazing. But now I can’t possibly leave Vegas (three days from now) down, and so I may have to cut myself off altogether tomorrow. Life is rough, I know…

Anyway, for today’s post on religion, I want to point out a basic confusion in NPR’s treatment of the new Hawking book. Specifically, “On Point” host Tom Ashbrook interviewed Cal Tech physicist Leonard Mlodinow, who is the co-author with Hawking of the new book, The Grand Design. Here are my thoughts:

==> First, let me say that this guy is excellent. He does a superb job of taking the extremely difficult topic and breaking it down in a way that makes it understandable, yet without sacrificing precision. He comes up with some great analogies, and I “felt his pain” when Tom Ashbrook kept saying aww-shucks things and Mlodinow had to keep clarifying what he had just said quite clearly the first time. So I am not at all challenging Mlodinow’s expertise as a physicist or even as a popularizer. What I want to do, though, is challenge the philosophical spin that he was giving to the results.

==> If you’ve never heard the details of the “fine-tuning argument” for the existence of God, start listening around 27:00. It’s not just things like, “Why do we have eyelashes, if a God didn’t put them there to keep dirt out of our eyes?” It’s more fundamental things, like the charge on the proton (and other things that this guy didn’t get into).

==> At about 29:00, Hawking explicitly says that the location of other universes, relative to our own, is an undefined concept. He says we can never make measurements of them. So I am not attacking a straw man when I say the theory of an infinite number of alternate universes is non-falsifiable. Now by itself that’s not a crippling objection in my book, but it’s very ironic because a lot of the most adamant believers in the power of the natural sciences to explain everything will tell you that unless a statement is (at least in principle) falsifiable, it is unscientific. And yet the way Hawking et al. dispense with the need for God, is to rely on what they themselves are admitting is a totally unobservable and untestable hypothesis. And again, this isn’t some minor assumption. The cosmologists who subscribe to this are saying: “OK, we can observe this universe, with its apparent laws. But suppose there are an infinite number of alternate universes, with every possible permutation of laws and initial conditions etc. If you grant me that, then look at how much I can explain…” That’s rather a heroic assumption. In fact, almost by definition, you couldn’t possibly have a more heroic assumption.

==> Starting around 34:00, the physicist says (not exact quote), “We’re not telling people that there is no God, but we are saying there are no miracles. We’ve been observing the natural world for a long time, and there are no exceptions to the laws of physics.” OK, this is a basic confusion. Yes there WERE exceptions to Newton’s purported laws of physics. And there are problems with explaining “everything” just with quantum theory, or with general relativity. (I am out of my league on this part, so I can’t say much more than that quantum theory works well on a subatomic level, whereas general relativity works well at the macro level.)

But no matter WHAT physicists observe, it would always be consistent with the (newly revised) laws of physics. If all of a sudden things didn’t seem to obey the original set of laws, it wouldn’t be due to a “miracle,” it would just mean that we were wrong about what the laws really were. And notice I’m not criticizing the procedure of the physicists here, I’m merely underscoring how silly Mlodinow’s statement is. It would be akin to me as an economist saying, “We’ve been looking at price behavior for decades, and have yet to see something not explainable as an interaction of supply and demand.”

==> OK now to the part of the interview that made me decide to blog about this. Start listening around 21:00. Tom Ashbrook says that we see quasars and galaxies etc., but why should there be something rather than nothing? Mlodinow says, “From nothing, according to the quantum laws, something will appear. That’s the simple answer. You can’t put a lid on it.” Ashbrook comes back and says with some skepticism, “And that’s mathematically proved?” Mlodinow responds, “Well quantum theory is extremely well-verified over many many decades. It’s probably our most tested theory in physics. It…yes, and the fluctuations, what we call vacuum fluctuations, are extremely well verified over many experiments.”

OK there’s a lot going on here. The basic idea is, you can’t have absolutely nothing, if quantum theory is right. Most readers have probably heard of the uncertainty principle, and how it’s impossible to completely ascertain the momentum and position of a particle. Well, most physicists now subscribe to the interpretation of that result which says it’s not merely that we can’t measure (say) the exact position and momentum of an electron at any given time, but that these items don’t even exist. In a sense, these items are in limbo (statistically), and when we make a measurement of one or the other, it forces the electron to make up its mind and “reveal” part of its properties, which cannot be said to have meaningfully existed prior to the scientist looking at it.

OK, so if you buy that, then you can see how it’s impossible for us to say that a given volume of space could be empty, or totally devoid of energy. Because suppose a particle came into existence really really really briefly, before disappearing again. So long as it did it fast enough such that we couldn’t detect it, then no laws (like the conservation of energy) would have been violated. Thus, it’s as nonsensical to speak of “utterly empty space” as it is to ask, “OK, but what is the exact position and momentum of the electron right now, ‘really’?”

All right, we’re almost there kids. So what Hawking and Mlodinow are arguing is that the laws of quantum mechanics (as we understand them) would be expected to “birth” our universe. You don’t need to assume some initial “input” of a bunch of matter/energy, to which you then apply the “laws of nature” and set the clock to unwind. On the contrary, the “laws of nature” themselves are such that if you go back in time–condensing all the matter and in fact space itself into a smaller and smaller volume–eventually you’ll get to a configuration that would spring into existence on its own, just because of the way quantum mechanics work.

Whew! Some heavy stuff. So we don’t really need to invoke God to explain the existence of stars and quasars, because quantum theory alone can explain it.

And then how do we know that quantum theory can explain it? Why, because quantum theory is the most finely tested theory in all of empirical science.

But we’ve just moved in a circle. In terms of a “deep” understanding, Mlodinow has said something akin to this: “Stars exist because they do. Look, there’s a star right there. Of course they exist.” And then Tom says, “Are you sure? Can you prove it?” And Mlodinow says, “Yes I’m sure. We have been seeing the sun for all of recorded history. Look, it’s right there! Of course it exists.”

In other words, Mlodinow is “explaining” the existence of the physical universe, by reference to a set of rules the validity of which is based utterly upon its predictive power in describing the physical universe. So we have explained that the world is the way it is, because of a set of rules that we derived from our observations of the world being the way it is.

Please do not misunderstand, what Hawking and Mlodinow are doing is very elegant. I have not read their book, and even if I did I could not independently confirm what they are claiming, but if they are correct, it is a fascinating theory. But what I’m saying is that they haven’t really “explained” the existence of the universe. And when Tom Ashbrook asked if this had been proven mathematically, I think he had in mind that now we know “God isn’t necessary” as surely as we know that 2+2=4, when this is not at all what Mlodinow established.

(BTW, if any Free Advice reader has actually done graduate physics work, then feel free to correct anything above that is inaccurate. I am not claiming to be an expert on quantum mechanics itself, though I am pretty sure that I am right about the philosophical errors on display in the interview.)

UPDATE: I want to make sure everyone understands both the strength and the weakness of my critique. First, the strength: Suppose Tom Ashbrook is interviewing me and says, “But Dr. Murphy, help me out, why do politicians lie so much?” I say, “Because of Rothbard’s Law, which states that all politicians are lying scumbags.” Ashbrook says, “And that’s mathematically proved?” I answer, “Well, Rothbard had five grad students study politicians from 42 countries over the span of 300 years. And every single one they looked at was a lying scumbag. So yeah, Rothbard’s Law is about the most well-tested theory in the social sciences. We have finally solved the mystery of why politicians lie.”

OK so I hope you all see where I’m coming from, regarding Mlodinow’s answer to why there should be quasars instead of nothing. He invokes quantum theory, but if there really were nothing, then quantum theory would be wrong. (This is because the only reason we think quantum theory is right, is that it accurately describes the universe we live in–with its quasars and galaxies etc.)

On the other hand, a physicist could point out that my critique applies to the enterprise of physics itself. For example, if someone says, “Why does this ball drop when I let go of it, and why does the moon move around the earth?” then to answer, “Because of the law of gravity” is itself a “circular” argument in the way I’ve classified Mlodinow’s response to Ashbrook. After all, the only reason we know the law of gravity is true, is that we observe balls falling when we drop them, and the moon revolving around the earth.

But surely we can all agree that Newton advanced human understanding when he posited a simple set of laws to describe all this apparently diverse phenomena.

In the same way, if Hawking et al. are right, then they have indeed pushed back the boundaries of our ignorance. They can explain “everything” with fewer assumptions than before. Their current explanation of “why” is more elegant than what Niels Bohr would have said.

Nonetheless, it is foolish to claim that “we’ve finally solved the mystery of existence.” Quantum theory itself can’t explain why quantum theory should be true.

39 Responses to “Has Stephen Hawking Solved the Mystery of Existence?”

  1. crossofcrimson says:

    I’ve always noticed this about the nature of scientific questioning. I think the framing is ultimately misleading. We ask “why?” something happens but what we’re really providing is an ever-more accurate understanding of “what?” happens instead. If you really think about it…”why” might not even really make sense in terms of our current understanding (as far as science is concerned). When I think of that question, albeit from my simple linguistic understanding of the word, it seems to imply intention…and thus a prime cause. And without getting into a conversation about free-will and determinism, that seems like it would be a relatively hard thing for us to grasp. If you ask “why”, with our limited human understanding, it seems like you could just keep walking through a chain of cause and effect without end…all the way back until the point where we’re asking why anything exists at all…even God himself if you’re inclined to be religious. That’s the oddest thing about it to me. Even if you were to say, “OK…God created all of this.” that still would only seem to push the question back for most of us. Well…what created God? Then you’re left with, “Well, he’s always been there” or “He created himself”…which doesn’t seem any less miraculous than the universe popping out of nowhere…even if we were inventive enough to describe WHAT happened in the process. Regardless of what is the prime cause for the universe…or if there is really one at all in any sense…I have a feeling our current framework isn’t sufficient to explain it. And I would take a shot in the dark (a very amateur shot) and guess that a lot of our confusion has to do with our piss-poor understanding of time.

  2. Silas Barta says:

    But we’ve just moved in a circle. In terms of a “deep” understanding, Mlodinow has said something akin to this: “Stars exist because they do. Look, there’s a star right there. Of course they exist.” And then Tom says, “Are you sure? Can you prove it?” And Mlodinow says, “Yes I’m sure. We have been seeing the sun for all of recorded history. Look, it’s right there! Of course it exists.”

    As funny as that sounds, that’s basically Steve_Landsburg’s argument for free will and the existence of the natural numbers (in the same sense that animals exist).

    Your explanation of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is better than his, too.

    Finally, about falsifiability:

    Hawking explicitly says that the location of other universes, relative to our own, is an undefined concept. He says we can never make measurements of them. So I am not attacking a straw man when I say the theory of an infinite number of alternate universes is non-falsifiable.

    I’m going to sound like Gene Callahan here, but whether or not “Science” endorses that, it’s too permissive an epistemology. See Belief in the Implied Invisible and my The Hard Problem of Tree Vibrations. In short, are you obligated to believe that a photon shuts out of existence, simply because it leaves your light cone, prohibiting you from ever measuring it again? No, because its continued existence follows as an implication from the best explanation for things that you *can* test.

  3. fundamentalist says:

    Nice post, Bob. Those of us who have been reading about the big bang for decades have noticed the problem of circular reasoning many times. Another example is rock dating methods. When paleontologists do radiometric dating of a rock, labs give them a wide range of dates, so they pick the one that agrees with the dates already assumed by geologists. It’s just a con game in which they use the radiometric methods in order to give their preconceived ideas a thin patina of “science” about them.

    crossofcrimson “I have a feeling our current framework isn’t sufficient to explain it.”

    You got that right, but the solution doesn’t have to do with time. Trying to find God with the methods of natural science assumes that God is part of the material world. If we limit the debate to natural sciences, we will always be in this muddle. Although as Bob points out, guys like Hawking have more of a problem than do creationists. We have to reassert logic as a valid method of truth. The debate is not much different from the economics methodology debate between the empiricists (mainstream) and the logicians (Austrian). Mainstream econ insists that the natural sciences provide the only possible means to truth; Austrians insist that logic is not only valid, but the better method. Christians need to do the same and quit wrestling in the mud with natural scientists and letting them make up all of the rules. Again, I highly recommend Feser’s “The Last Superstition” as a starting place.

  4. Ash says:

    Modern science really answers what, not why, or even how. And, according to some, it doesn’t even answer ‘what’ accurately.

    So count me as a Callahanesque objector to the Hawking-Mlodinow argument.

    (Sorry for all the links.)

  5. Knox Harrington says:

    It appears that the Hawking-Mlodinow explanation is not believed because it rests on a circular argument which simply relies on a restatement of the original premise and proves nothing. I think – based on the description of the argument – that is a legitimate criticism. However, falling back on God to answer the questions holds a similar and more problematic trap. We can test in science and provide the “proof” required – theoretically including the quantum states, etc. We can’t do that with God. Relying on texts generated by 1st Century pre-literate societies in the backwater of the planet does not give me any more comfort as to origins and causes of the universe than the does the explanation of Hawking et al. Hawking and others have the benefit though because they, at least, provide testable hypotheses and evidence that can be critiqued and debated.

    There may not be “good” explanations provided by science but I still can’t figure out why “God” explanations are supposedly so much better.

    • fundamentalist says:

      The big bang and evolution in general is just bad science. Creation science does a good job of rescuing science from ideology. But if you want to set the rules of the debate so that natural science and only natural science provide truth, then now good answers are available. Logic is necessary, such as “is it logical that something can come from nothing?”

      And you have to be willing to investigate the ideological assumptions of the big bang. The fact that scientists like Hawking do not even recognize the unfounded assumptions on which they rely shows their philosophical naiveté.

      • Silas Barta says:

        Creation science does a good job of rescuing science from ideology.

        I sometimes wonder if you just post here as a joke.

      • Knox Harrington says:

        “The big bang and evolution in general is just bad science. Creation science does a good job of rescuing science from ideology.”

        Ideology: a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture. Which one is the ideologue? The scientist who posits a theory and is willing to be disproven or the fundamentalist who knows neither science nor logical argument – and who lets neither get in the way of his faith or making bald assertions without foundation. I’ll let others be the judge. But then again, I am probably just “setting the rules of debate.”

        “Is it logical that something can come from nothing?” Is it logical to assert the existence of a God to explain that something came from nothing?

        Please investigate your own ideological assumptions and stop bad faith theorizing about the motives of others. I am setting that rule of debate. Also, quit pimping Feser’s book “The Last Superstition” – do you obtain royalties from him?

        • fundamentalist says:

          You clearly are ignorant of anything related to creation science and proud to advertise it. What else is new?

          • Knox Harrington says:

            Using the term “creation science” is breathtakingly inane. There is nothing substantive to “creation science” therefore it is difficult to be ignorant of things which bear no scientific value. It’s like saying you are ignorant of the Teletubbies – my response is “Yes, and ….” But, that aside, I know the “claims” of the creation scientists – in fact, I visited Ken Ham’s creation museum outside Cincinnati and sat through a two-day seminar put on by Answers in Genesis but, yet again, because I disagree with your assertions and myth I am “ignorant, haven’t read, don’t know, can’t argue” and the rest of the usual suspects.

            What is not new is your take on anything on these boards.

            I will save you the trouble of responding to this post. I know you think I haven’t read or seriously considered your religious views because to do so would be to be convinced by them. BTW any response to my previous questions about the zombies in Matthew, the falsity of the Exodus, the second coming destruction of the Temple in 77 (as you claimed) or anything else you refused to answer last time?

  6. david (not henderson) says:

    It seems to me that Hawking-Mlodinow have merely provided an extremely sophisticated discussion of how something (i.e., the universe, the world, etc.) was created out of two different somethings: a) a apparent “nothing” that was really not a nothing at all (but in fact a “something”) due to quantum laws and b) the quantum laws themselves. So their supposed answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing is really an answer to another question, i.e., what previous something(s) did our current something evolve from? Theirs is not a substitute for a story of creation or of origin but just a story of an earlier iteration.

    Knox said:

    “There may not be “good” explanations provided by science but I still can’t figure out why “God” explanations are supposedly so much better.”

    Granted. It is also the case that certain “God” explanations (i.e., no role for evolution at all, world created 10000 years ago or whatever) seem to have been superseded by sensible scientific explanations about evolution from previous iterations. However, from my perspective, the point is not so much that “God” explanations are supposedly so much better but that these days any God explanation whatsoever is dismissed, in a rather vicious way, as the irrational ravings of superstitious and ignorant folk.even though science has not even attemptted to provide a competing theory as to why there is something and not nothing.

    There are two options. One, there was an origin (and not just a previous iteration). Two, there was no origin, only an eternal history stretching from the world back to the big bang and back from there to whatever was previous and so on. I am not aware that science has an explanation for the “origin” theory. An origin requires a creation event of some kind. I am not sure that science is any better equipped to explain a “no-origin” theory than it is an “origin” theory. If anything, it sounds more supernatural than an “origin” theory.

    • Silas Barta says:

      Are you familiar with Julian Barbour’s timeless physics. (Yudkowsky’s introduction.)

      Under that view, all configurations (universe states) sit statically in a (relative) configuration space, with a rule that puts different weightings on different configurations, so some are more likely to be perceived than others. Our perception of time is an artifact of our cognition’s attempt to make sense of the world, and a timewise “ordering” of events is just one effective explanation. That is, we perceive “time capsules” that are best explained by *positing* a temporal order, but the relationships between different times can be explained without reference to time as a separate variable.

      In this view, the “big bang” or the beginning of the universe is just the maximally degenerate point in configuration space. For example, imagine that the universe is compose of three point particles which make a triangle. You can imagine a three-dimensional space where each point in the space corresponds to one of those triangles. Because of the triangle inequality, not all points are possible: some points correspond to two of the particles being “on top” of each other, in which case one dimension goes away. When the three particles are all on top of each other, that is the maximally degenerate point, and corresponds to the “big bang” — it is zero-dimensional, and all observers would regard this point as “in the past”.

      I’m probably not making a lot of sense right now, but this is something to check out.

    • Knox Harrington says:

      You seem to be saying that we know a lot more than we did 2,000 years ago and that we have, sensibly, decided that evolution explains human development from previous iterations. Assuming, arguendo, that an “origin” theory is preferable to a “no-origin” theory which “origin” theory is correct?

      Obviously, the Greek myths were supplanted in Western society by Christian theology (a myth story in my view). Why? Did the evolution of the world into a monotheistic one have something to do with science? Did humans decide to winnow out the pantheistic world for simplicity sake? If so, why do we clutch to the pre-literate oral histories that became the Old and New Testament rather than rely on the same oral to written tradition of Homer and the like (the Zeus mythos)? My children love the Percy Jackson and the Olympians movie – it is at least more entertaining than the Christian story (Cecil B. DeMIlle notwithstanding).

      My personal opinion is that humans qua humans are the only creatures aware of their own mortality and faced with that knowledge we selfishly create an afterlife to help us confront the cosmos. This is a better explanation for the multiplicity and ubiquity of religions than any other I have come across. As soon as humans evolve to the point that they can effectively confront and accept their own mortality the better off we will be (IMHO) because then the stupidty of fighting over “God land grants” from pre-history and the like will be thrown aside and real progress can be made.

  7. Gene Callahan says:

    david (not henderson) makes a sound point. You’ll like this:

    • david (not henderson) says:

      Thanks Gene.

    • Silas Barta says:

      Oh? Could you please explain which point in particular you found to be insightful, and by what epistemological standard?

      Only if you can, I mean — no rush or anything.

  8. David R. Henderson says:

    David (actual Henderson) writes:
    Bob, Even though I’m a convinced atheist, I think this is one of your best posts ever.

    • bobmurphy says:

      Thanks David. I called myself a “devout atheist” in college, so I totally understand the appeal of that outlook. I will keep plugging away, and maybe if something happens in your life to make you doubt your current convictions, you will have my arguments to help you switch.

  9. Sean A says:

    Ever since black-holes (which was first built from mathematics rather than observation), theoretical physics has shifted towards a game of ‘find the solutions to the equation’ and away from scientific observation. Where do you think the 11 dimensions (10 spacial, 1 time) of M-theory came from? That number rather conveniently fits the equations of super-string theory. The field is crossing that realm into pseudo-science.
    As an aspiring physicist and math-enthusiast, I find the apparent incompatibility between mathematics and nature–e.g. Cantor, Godel, Boltzman, and Chaos theory (the other kind)–far more alluring than this mathematical sorcery. You’re absolutely right in your assessment of a lack of falsifiability. And while I admire Hawking, he seems more and more intent on appealing to the public through controversial topics such as God (controversial in the scientific methodological sense).

  10. bobmurphy says:

    Hey everyone thanks for all the insightful comments. I am actually rather proud of our display here. Jack Handy would be pleased.

  11. greg ransom says:

    Hayek forced Popper to acknowledge that Darwinian biology is science and the falsifiability criterion didn’t apply — as it didn’t apply to all essentially complex phenomena.

    Kuhn also debunked the falsifiability criterion.

    Whom still holds this view even Popper abandoned?

    • bobmurphy says:

      Greg, in case I wasn’t clear: I know (and you know) that in the philosophy of science, falsifiability has been shown to have all sorts of problems (not least of which is that the criterion itself is non-falsifiable). But I’m saying when you argue with people, especially about religion vs. science, that’s usually a trump card thrown in your face. E.g. see Knox Harrington’s adjacent argument.

  12. crossofcrimson says:

    If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.

  13. K Sralla says:

    The essay Gene Callahan links to is excellent, containing some ideas that people need to grapple with. The essay’s author interestingly sites St. Augustine.

    Folks interested in these types of discussions must realize that many of these “modern” ideas on cosmology can certainly be traced back to Plato and Aristotle (and no doubt they were already around prior to the Greeks to some extent). In utilizing Platonic reasoning, Augustine was able to delve deeply into reality and origins, and I am quite sure he would have been at home in our “modern” discussion. Recently, I have been re-reading Augustine’s autobiography “Confessions”, and literally have been awed by his insights.

    My comment on Hawking: His media statements are non-sense feeding popular culture and book sales. He may be a good mathematician, but he is no philosopher. He gets an F in philosophy class. Read St. Augustine instead.

    • Silas Barta says:

      No. There is a HUGE difference between

      1) “Duuuuude, what if, like, everything started from this, like big *bang*…?”


      2) “We have this field-tested, predictive model that is able to make sense of these very disparate phenomena, and has, as an implication, that the universe had rapid expansion in its early history.”

      It is only by ignoring the distinction that you can make the Greeks look somehow insightful on this.

    • Aristos says:

      Augustine changed my life. He makes the allusion to his life as a house, and Jesus was a carpenter!

  14. K Sralla says:


    Have you read Augustine? I mean really read him seriously? Until you do, I suggest you refrain from casual dismissal.

    I am a professional scientist (geologist/geophysicist), and practice the natural sciences in my real life, so please don’t lecture me on the practice of natural science. Certainly quantum mechanics are not my specialty, but I know enough to call a turd in the punchbowl when I see it. It is only by not correctly understanding the problem that you dismiss the Greeks.

    Consider this: The “field tested model” of cosmology (or anything else for matter) is a paramaterization of reality concocted in the human brain to explain phenomena. It may have predictive power, but it does not have ontological power. If Hawking’s math is the ontological power, then he is God.

    • Silas Barta says:

      1) Quantum mechanics is the most well-test and re-testable aspect of current knowledge (let alone scientific knowledge), not a turd in the punch bowl.

      2) The only parameterization of reality concocted in the human brain is our intuitve model of reality (i.e. “folk physics”), and the deviations of these expectations from reality (i.e. space being curved instead of flat) are what modern physics discerns, and which the ancient Greeks were not able to notice because they failed to account for the role of their own cognition when speculating about the universe’s nature. You’re getting it completely reversed to call modern cosmology some kind of human-brain-unique concoction.

      3) Your claim was that the Greeks hat earlier hit on these modern cosmological ideas; my point was that it’s not enough to guess the answer correctly, and you haven’t shown that they did any more than this.

      4) What exactly do the Greeks have to offer beyond, “But you haven’t proven anything about the *unverifiable* stuff!”?

    • The Dude says:

      Wow! You must be right because you phrased your assertions with such a profound vocabulary. You only left out “epistemology,” which you might want to look up.

      “If Hawking’s math is the ontological power, then he is God”? So mathematicians are God or God is merely a mathematician? Seriously. Your response shows only a hard-on to show off how smart you think you are.

      You’re a geologist. Look at that rock and describe for me the face of God.

      • Jake says:

        I understand your point, but your rebuttal is far too ad hominem.

  15. K Sralla says:

    1) You misunderstood the tenor of my comment. Quantum mechanics is a wonderfully elegant explanation of physical reality. The punch is quantum mechanics, the turd is Hawking’s philosophy. It is pop philosophy at best. I presume you will disagree, but please let me assure you that there is not a peer-reviewed journal of any repute anywhere in the world in either math or philosophy where a paper has been accepted (by Hawking or anyone else) that purports to mathematically disprove the God of the philosophers. If you are under the dillusion (pardon my borrowing the term from Dawkins) that this is what Hawking has accomplished, please show me the paper, and we will discuss specifics.

    2) Are you really sure you want to stick with that answer? Think that answer through a bit more, otherwise back to grad school you go! Please do tell where in the universe quantum theory exists apart from the human brain? I am dead serious. Please show. I am willing to learn something. The stuff being described exists in some form, but the mathematics descibing this stuff is a language of human communication with the ideas existing only in our brain. All language, no matter how precise (and mathematics is a very sharp tool of human communication), tends to truncate reality to some degree or another. That is parameterization. We know this as natural scientists, and live with it’s unsettling ramifications. It’s the best we know how to do.

    In its most basic explanation, quatum theory is simply the mathematical model positing the most basic particles of physical reality, and the energetics behind those basic blobs of stuff. It is being tested experimentally, and to some degree many of its predictions are verified, yet some of its most profound are yet to be observed except on paper. Yes, physics has demonstrated beyond a doubt the existence of the quantum world of physical reality, but the Greeks reasoned such an “atomic” world 2,500 years ago. Don’t mishear me, quantum theory is an almost sublime explanation of the basic fabric of the stuff, with high mathematical predictive power, however, it is not the complete representation of physical reality itself. It is yet another deeper level in perhaps an infinite regress in reductionist physics, yet if the theory is an incomplete mathematical model of reality, it must be labeled a truncation or paramaterization of reality useful only in the mind of Man (as far as I know) to serve as a tool to help us make sense of the real thing. Only the most arrogant and unwise physicist will confidently assert otherwise, and claim that they have discovered the “theory of everything”.

    3 and 4) Read St. Augustine and marvel at how far 4th Century thinking got using another tool of human congnition called logic. Ask yourself honestly if we have advanced the ball a great distance further using mathematics.

  16. Koba says:

    Why delete Dr. Geology?

  17. Silas Barta says:

    Thanks for confirming my suspicions that none of your suggested readings offer relevant insights, though I don’t expect an apology for nearly sending me off on a wild good chase.

    1) Of course journals don’t accept claims of that nature — because they only deal with stuff that can be tested, i.e. has causal closure with respect to observable reality, which mainstream conceptions of God define so as to avoid such a test. Hawking’s point is simply, “okay, all that remaining, observable stuff you still want to use God to explain? The equations cover that, too.” And that claim is accepted and substantiated in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

    2) Yes, if all you meant was that human brains formulated modern cosmology, then I agree, but then your claim doesn’t prove anything! You were phrasing it as if modern cosmology is simply an artifact of our cognition, which it is emphatically not (and which is why I was careful to choose the words “human brain-unique”). There are various degrees to which you can err in taking your cognitive architecture as a fundamental aspect of reality; the Greeks erred almost completely, while modern science corrects for this, which is how it found EM radiation outside the visible light band, optical illusions, stereo vision’s functionality, etc.

    3-4) *checks GPS nav system* Yeah, we have. We really, really have. What comparable advance did St. Augustine provide? Logic is just a brittle, crippled version of more productive epistemologies (like falsificationism compared to Bayesian inference).

  18. K Sralla says:

    “Logic is just a brittle, crippled version of more productive epistemologies (like falsificationism compared to Bayesian inference).”

    Now I know for certain that you indeed need to go back to grad school and learn some math. Bayesian inference is logic expressed in numbers. Good try!

    • Silas Barta says:

      Yes, Bayesian inference is a generalization of the binary, yes/no, absolute certainty logic used by the ancients; the problem is that they didn’t *use* that generalization — they used the brittle, unproductive part.

  19. fundamentalist says:

    The Economist has a good review of Hawking’s book at http://www.economist.com/node/16990802. Hard to believe, but it’s true.

  20. K Sralla says:

    “they used the brittle, unproductive part”

    I sometimes wonder if you just post here as a joke

    • Silas Barta says:

      I’m sorry, how mind-blowing, exactly, do you consider it to figure out stuff like,

      -All humans are mortal.
      -Socrates is a human.
      -Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

      Certainly there’s some inferential work going on there, just not enough to make fundamental advances in our understanding of reality.

  21. K Sralla says:

    “All humans are mortal.
    -Socrates is a human.
    -Therefore, Socrates is mortal.”

    -And that’s the kind of thinking we need much much much more of in our day, and the kind of thinking that I humbly suggest young Silas master before he moves on to advanced concepts in the later chapters. With that pre-requisite, quite possibly a more seasoned Silas may one day have an opportunity to make fundamental advances in our understading of reality. And that’s no joke.